New Gulf Shores arborist working to protect and study city's trees

By GUY BUSBY Government Editor guy@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 9/7/22

GULF SHORES — As Gulf Shores develops, protecting the trees and other aspects of the environment that attract people to the resort community is a priority, the city's new arborist said.Joel …

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New Gulf Shores arborist working to protect and study city's trees

Joel Potter is the new Gulf Shores city arborist.
Joel Potter is the new Gulf Shores city arborist.
GUY BUSBY / GULF COAST MEDIA
Posted

GULF SHORES — As Gulf Shores develops, protecting the trees and other aspects of the environment that attract people to the resort community is a priority, the city's new arborist said.

Joel Potter has been the city arborist for about three months. He is the first full-time arborist assigned to study and protect Gulf Shores' trees.

"I look at every single building permit that comes through the city," Potter said. "We review every single one for trees, every building permit, every land disturbance, basically anything done, the trees get looked at."

The city recently approved a tree ordinance that requires property owners to get permission before cutting many trees on their property. That
includes developers, who, in the past, have cleared entire subdivision sites before construction.

"One of the big focuses for this ordinance, the reason it came into existence, is because of some of the things they were trying to get away from is you were getting development and before the first house was built, you go in and you just clear every lot and you've got a clean slate to start with. They were trying to stop that," Potter said. "They don't want a single tree on the lot. They don't want to have to deal with that."

He said city officials are trying to balance property rights with the need to protect trees.

Different species of trees have different levels of protection. Live oaks and sand oaks are protected once they reach a diameter of 6 inches at chest height. Other species are protected after they reach 12 inches.

Many types of non-native trees, considered invasive species, are not protected under the ordinance. This would include popcorn trees and mimosa trees.

Property owners can also cut more trees in a back yard or if the tree is near a building and could be a threat in a storm, Potter said.

"You get a little more leeway in the back yard. If it's close to a house, you get leeway," Potter said. "The way Gulf Shores approaches it, is the tree a hazard? I'll look at structural defects or health. Is the tree in decline? Those are sort of automatic OK trees. But if it's a healthy tree, you get into some remediation, having to replace it by either putting into the city's tree fund or planting new trees on your property. The idea is just to not lose that canopy."

Potter began his career as an intern with the city of Mobile Urban Forestry Department. He also worked as a private consultant advising pecan farmers on trees. After getting his master's degree from Auburn, he returned to work for the city of Mobile before coming to Gulf Shores.

He said he likes Gulf Shores' approach to tree protection, which looks at the appearance of the canopy as well as factors such as visibility for traffic.

"I like the city's approach in that they've got a lot more approach on aesthetics," Potter said. "That makes sense being a tourist city, but that's something I think is often lacking in urban forestry programs. They get completely focused on thoroughfares, being able to get trucks down the road, hazards, which those need to be the top priority, but aesthetics need to come in there. That's a really good thing that Gulf Shores has, one of the things that stood out in my interview."

He also likes the variety of trees he's finding in the coastal community.

"You have a lot more sand live oak, which I find sand live oak a more interesting tree than a live oak," Potter said. "They stay a little shorter, got a darker leaf, more cupped leaf. I think they have a spookier look. Don't know if that's a scientific term, but I think they're a cooler tree and that's what we predominately have, at least the ones that are native here, that have sprouted up on their own. I really like that."

Potter said trees are not just attractive, they can also help protect homes from hurricanes.

"Those trees can give protection from the storms," Potter said. "They just see an object that can fall, but when you've got that straight line wind, the more it's doing this, the less it's going to impact the structures. Sometimes that big old live oak that's been sitting there 100 years, it's protecting your house."

Since coming to Gulf Shores, Potter has noticed the effects of past storms on the tree canopy.

"You see a lot of pine stands and stuff, everything's sitting like this," Potter said holding his hand at an angle. "It's real common when you clear these neighborhoods too, because you get aside a wall of trees that have never had to withstand wind and then you get that back tree line and it's tilted, or it starts to fall. I've seen a lot of that stuff. That's probably the biggest thing I've noticed."

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